Gravity (Movie) Review

Gravity (Movie) Review

I’m not big on hyperbole, but every once in a while a movie comes along that deserves it. Gravity is one of those movies. This is the type of film that pull quote buzzwords like “groundbreaking,” “masterpiece,” or “game-changer” were created for. There’s simply never been a cinematic experience quite like Gravity before and its beauty, spectacle, and sheer visceral force will be mimicked, referenced, and built upon for years to come. It’s the type of invigorating cinematic experience that can even make a cynical, salty-dog film lover like myself stop thinking or analyzing to simply get lost in gob smacked “oohs” and “aahs.” The film is a remarkable piece of work that demands to be seen on the biggest of screens (yes, even in 3D) because the experience of watching it for the first time feels somewhere between a movie and a ride. People will be pointing to Alfonso Cuaron’s latest feature as a milestone for years, so it’s probably best to get in on the ground floor appreciation now. It’ll be a while before you see something this stunningly fresh again.

The plot could not be simpler. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play a pair of astronauts floating around their ship while working on a routine science expedition. Bullock is a bit nervous about the whole thing; Clooney is a cocky veteran who seems unshakable. Then an unexpected message from NASA comes through claiming that a nearby satellite has exploded, sending debris hurtling through space towards them. The duo struggle to finish up their tasks and return to their ship. Then the debris arrives ahead of schedule, demolishing their ship and sending Bullock hurtling ass-backwards into the empty void. She spins alone and without human contact for a few terrifying moments before Clooney finally comes through on her intercom. She finds a way to signal him and he finally floats towards her, tethers the two of them together, and begins madly trying to figure out what to do next. What I just described is the first 13-minutes of the movie. It’s executed in what appears to be a single floating camera shot involving some of the most stunningly photo-real CGI ever created as well as a seamless mixture of actors and a digital environment.  From there, the movie follows the two astronauts’ struggle to return to earth over the next 70 minutes in real time. Somehow, the most impressive imagery and gut-wrenching set pieces are still to come.

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Director Alfonso Cuaron spent years struggling to bring this movie to the screen. Beyond the fact that new technology had to be developed simply to pull off what he had in mind, the way the film was to be produced would cost $100 million, but the studio wouldn’t get to see a frame of what it would actually look like until months and months into production. Cuaron did have the commercial clout of Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban (aka the best one) and the Oscar-nominated prestige of Children Of Men and Y Tu Mama Tambien under his belt, but that still wasn’t quite enough to get a greenlight for such an ambitious project. Thankfully, it eventually happened once two of the biggest stars on the planet signed on for the only onscreen roles. It feels in many ways like a culmination of the work Cuaron has done to date. The long-take style as well as his desire to mix populist genres with art house techniques and themes are pushed to the limit here. Visually, there’s simply no benchmark to point to that accurately describes the experience (well, maybe 2001: A Space Odyssey). The CGI is astounding, but the way Cuaron uses his weightless, hovering camera is the real draw. The camera flies across the planet and into characters visors, yet never just for the show off sake of it. Cuaron’s camera is always perfectly positioned to express Bullock’s emotional state and the audience takes that ride with her to the end. For the most part, the effect is intensely sensory and visceral, plunging audiences into the woozy weightlessness, deafening silence, and horrifying vastness of dead cold space. It’s likely many audiences will feel ill from the experience. The good news is, that’ll be a sign of success. You should feel ill. This ride is sickeningly intense.

For the most part, Gravity is a film all about the experience, kind of like the ultimate space simulator with a story or an IMAX space documentary gone wrong. However, Cuaron and his actors do take the time to lay out some universal themes and emotions that only heighten the impact of the spectacle. The film is ultimately about overcoming adversity and tragedy through growth and rebirth. That’s about as simple and elemental a theme as exists in drama. Some sniffy overly intellectual folks might consider it hackneyed, but there’s something admirable about the directness and simplicity of the entire project. If you’re going to provide an audience with a visual and technical experience unlike anything they’ve ever experienced, you don’t need much complexity elsewhere. The themes Cuaron explores are universal and he elegantly incorporates them into the film in a way that only heightens the audience investment in the material. Let’s face it, blockbusters are simplistic as a genre. But rarely are they poetically simplistic.

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At the center of it all, Sandra Bullock expresses the loss, tragedy, and sheer terror of her character exquisitely. The film must have been a nightmare to make and yet, you’d never know it. She lives and breathes her character with such intensity and emotion that you’ll never once picture her dangling from wires against a green screen struggling to play pretend. The same goes for George Clooney, whose natural charm and charisma essentially are his performance, yet he provides an easy entry point to guide viewers into the movie. At first it was a bit worrying to see such marquee names on a poster for a movie that didn’t need them, but given how stripped down the script is and how focused the film is on creating a heightened experience for the audience, having two actors who instantly feel known and relatable to the audience helps get the ride up and running instantly with no screen time wasted setting things up.

You’ll be hearing a lot of Gravity this year. The film was a $100 million experiment that worked and is sure to leave audiences drooling in delight. The hype machine on this one is already up and running and it’s sure to only get more intense was audiences are allowed in on the fun. For once, it’s safe to believe the hype. What Alfonso Cuaron has created is remarkable. Miraculous, even. It’s hard to even describe why, and truly needs to be seen and experienced to be believed. So do that. Pick the biggest screen you can, sit as close to the center of the theater as possible, butter up your popcorn, and prepare to be wowed. Movies like this come along once in a decade if we’re lucky. Savour it.

Ten Genre Films To Watch At TIFF 2013

Ten Genre Films To Watch At TIFF 2013

Well, it’s that time a year again. The Toronto Film Festival has come to town with all of the celebrities, filmmakers, egos, talent, and of course, movies that implies. With hundreds of films showing over ten short days, it’s not only physically impossible to see them all, but damn difficult just to decide which movies to pick from the stack. Fortunately, I’m here for all you fine readers and prepared to offer ten suggestions of film fest picks for the genre movie sect. There’s no art house pretension here (well, maybe a little), just pure entertainment for genre nuts. Decapitations, explosions, laughs, action, horror, even a little beauty, these movies have it all. If you need a little help picking tickets to buy, you could do far worse than these 10 titles.

10) A Field In England

A Field In England
A Field In England (2013)

After only three films, writer/director Ben Wheatley has become one of the most intriguing young filmmakers working today. Down Terrace was one of the finest British gangster films of the last ten years despite costing about $25, Kill List is one of the most scarring horror flicks in recent memory, and Sightseers was the most disturbed love story of mass murder since True Romance. Now Wheatley returns to TIFF for the third straight year with A Field Of England. It’s a twisted little piece of hallucinogenic art horror about a group of English civil war survivors wandering an empty field with only a peculiar crop of mushrooms to keep them company. The film is sure to be a twisted treat and is stocked with brilliant British character actors like Michael Spaced Smiley and Reece League Of Gentlemen Sheersmith. Expect a liberal mix of thoughtful philosophizing and dirty genre thrills.

9) Afflicted

For those who like to skip the artiest TIFF entries, Midnight Madness is something of a safe haven. A highly influential program of the most mind-bending genre films around screened in the wee hours to the most vocal audience of genre fans that you’re likely to ever squeal at a movie with. Every year the program promises pleasant surprises and this year the most unexpected treat might be Afflicted. Made by a pair of first time Vancouver filmmakers, Afflicted weaves a tale about two twenty-somethings who embark on a party-packed Eurotrip, only for one of them to contract some sort of disease or supernatural shenanigan from a gal in Paris. From there the movie slides into body horror and monster movie territory, all packed with liberal doses of humor. It’s kind of like An American Werewolf In London for the iPhone era and a found footage horror movie that manages to avoid most of the zero-budget genre’s clichés.

8) The Double

Generally speaking adaptations of Russian literature wouldn’t make this list, but The Double is different. It’s a twist on Dostoevsky’s novella about a painfully normal man who discovers that he has an exact double one day and is forced to deal with the consequences. That’s material ripe for a paranoid thriller in the Roman Polanski vein, but with British writer/director Richard Ayoade (Darkplace, Submarine) in charge and Jesse Eisenberg starring, it’s also guaranteed to be as darkly humorous as it is philosophically disturbing. It should be more of a nightmare comedy than a rumination on identity, while still touching on all those themes for the brainy folks in the crowd.

7) Jodorosky’s Dune

Alejandro El Topo Jodorosky’s Dune is one of the most legendary unmade projects in Hollywood. It was meant to epic production of Frank Herbert’s classic that would have been directed by a madman, scored by Pink Floyd, designed by H.R. Giger, and starred among others Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger, and Orson Welles. Despite working out a way to pull off the groundbreaking pre-Star Wars production for an affordable $15 million along with a gorgeous collection of storyboards passed around Hollywood (i.e. ripped off) for years, no studio was willing to finance it. Yet, the project was so fascinating and oddly influential, that it’s become infamous amongst movie buffs. That’s where Frank Pavich’s new doc comes in, offering an amazing, hilarious, and heartbreaking look back on the epic that never was. The story behind Jodorosky’s Dune might actually be better than the movie would have been, so perhaps it all turned out for the best.

6) The Sacrament

Ti West has established himself as the modern master of slow burn horror with the delightfully atmospheric twosome of House Of The Devil and The Innkeepers. Any movie he made next would instantly rocket to the top of any self-respecting genre fan’s “must see” list, but the topic he eventually chose only makes things more exciting. West’s new film is about a vice journalist infiltrating a Jonestown-style suicide cult, a subject that hasn’t been touched on by many features films (well, good ones anyways), but is dripping with terrifying potential. The build-up on this one is sure to be slow,  but the payoff should have viewers squealing in the aisles and that’s exactly the type of film you want to see during TIFF, now isn’t it?

5) Only Lovers Left Alive

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

Jim Jarmusch has been many things over the course of his career; an indie pioneer, a proto-hipster, a bastion for black and white, a chronicler of the sad face of old Bill Murray, etc. However, one thing he has never been is a horror director… until now. Jarmusch’s latest feature is about burned out vampire lovers in rotting Detroit. Now, this being a Jarmush joint, the film won’t be dominated by weepy-eyed romance or bloodsoaked massacres. There will be some of that given that it’s a vampire movie, but the film will be more of a meditation on listless eternal life flavored by Jarmusch’s typical deadpan humor. In other words, it should be unlike any vampire movie ever made and with lead roles assigned to the already somewhat vampiric Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, the flick should not be missed.

4) All Cheerleaders Must Die

As the title suggests, the latest movie by Lucky McKee and Chris Sivertson (May and The Lost) probably won’t offer the subtle charms of a Jim Jarmusch movie and that’s exactly what will make it so great. Adapted from their decade old zero budget debut, All Cheerleaders Must Die is a darkly comedic balls-to-the-wall ode to bad taste. Mixing supernatural horror with pitch black Heathers-style high school satire, this is sure to be one of the biggest gut punches of subversive entertainment offered in the festival. It’s one of those movies that will have to be seen to be believed and unsurprisingly, screens at midnight.

3) The Wind Rises

The latest film by Hayao Spirited Away Miyazaki was always going to be a must see TIFF entry, but this weekend the flick became even more appealing when the legendary animator announced it would be the last movie he ever directs. Based on a the true story of a man who designed Japanese fighter planes during World War II, the movie will be a more subdued effort than normal for the masterful fantasist. Yet, it’s themes of a hungry young man with creative aspirations who succeeds against insurmountable odds, suggests it might be highly personal swan song for Miyazaki. It’s already sad to imagine a world with no new Hayao Miyazaki films on the way, but at least there are two more hours of animated perfection to savor. If you’re even remotely interested in anime, skipping this feature would be absolute madness.

2) The Green Inferno

It’s been far too long since Eli Roth directed a feature film, but now that he’s back the gore-spilling genre icon returns to the festival that launched Cabin Fever, Hostel, and his career. The Green Inferno doesn’t just revive Roth as a director, but also brings back a long lost horror genre: the cannibal picture. If you’ve seen such vomit-inducing classics as Cannibal Holocaust or Cannibal Ferox, you’ll know what to expect. If not, that’s exactly what Roth is hoping for. This is one of the most vicious, graphic, unsettling, and political subgenres to ever emerge from the world of horror and Roth is just the man to bring it back. Just keep in mind that vomit bags are not included with tickets. You’ve been warned.

1) Gravity

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Gravity (2013)

Finally, there’s only one movie that could possibly top this list. An ambitious sci-fi epic from Alfonso Cuaron, the man who gave us the finest Harry Potter movie (aka Prisoner Of Azkaban) and the masterful Children Of Men back in the 2000s before disappearing for almost 10 years. Now he’s back with a movie about astronauts floating lost in space. One guaranteed to squeeze all of the horrific, scientific, and metaphysical juice out of the concept as possible. The fleeting glimpses offered in trailers so far have been astounding, so one can only imagine what the final film will be. It’s sure to be a visual masterpiece and possibly the most thematically rich blockbuster of the year as well. Would it be better if the movie didn’t star Sandra Bullock and George Clooney? Probably. But, there’s no way a hundred million dollar art movie could be launched in Hollywood without a pair of superstars to back it up. Cuaron has been trying to get this movie made for a decade and now that it’s here, no self-respecting genre fan can afford to miss his latest creation without deserved shame/embarrassment.